It is ten weeks until my second novel Salt Lick is published. As we move towards that future date, I wanted to look at the path the story of Salt Lick takes into its own imagined future.
It is set some years from now in a world that is in many ways easily recognisable. The sea eats the edges of the land. The weather can be cruel. People live in families, go to work, do their best and their worst.
I’ve always described the book as being not dystopian but further down the wrong road. Interestingly when Rónán Hession was kind enough to read it, he described it as being ‘a capsule of England’s dystopian present’ which I think in a way is the same thing. It has never seemed likely to me that suddenly, everything will become horrendously bad for everyone. But at all points in our history, things have been horrendously bad for some.
I wrote the first draft in 2016, in the context of Brexit and a frightening rise in populism. I imagined that an authoritarian, right wing government would use my then imaginary pandemic (more devastating but more vague than the one we have since experienced) to tighten controls on the people; this looks very much a part of our dystopian present when you consider among other things, the draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021. The internet would be controlled and the government, both authoritarian and libertarian would read the mood and govern with the main purpose of retaining power.
Another key idea in the book, in a country with a smaller, more tightly controlled population is a countryside that is once again wild. I imagined that post-Brexit labour shortages would lead to more and more food importation. This in turn would make the rural economy first weak and eventually non-existent. People would move to the cities. The countryside would become wild again.
I had a lot of fun imagining the consequences of such a shift; empty department stores in small towns, mediaeval churches languishing in a nest of reeds, hardy self-sufficient groups living off-grid and reclaiming the land. And of course, feral cows, the chorus of the book, commenting with love and exasperation on events.
However, some of my conclusions are not what you could call fun. White nationalism has always been darkly present but seemed to grow from the shadows with Trump and Brexit/Johnson, just at the point when I started writing. I thought in this not so distant future, some people would take the opportunity to indulge these sad, exclusionary fantasies and would drift into empty places to live out their fears. So in Salt Lick, there are White Towns. They are small and spread out, in many ways risible but also “a danger, a pathogen, stored in pockets of the land like a contagious rash”. It seemed possible that we could walk into a future where this happens. And during a time when political fortunes are being shored up on the back of a culture war that recklessly stokes the fearfulness and frailty of those people used to presuming their own white superiority, it only seems more so.
But bleak though these two themes are, I still maintain that it is no dystopia. There are people who determinedly maintain a connection to the land, there are idealists and political activists. There are people learning to make rope and build mills. There are city gardeners growing fresh food for their communities. There is love. There is in effect, down this future road, the same muddling-along mixture that there has always been.
It struck me the other day that as a child, I remember being told that in ancient Greece, it was common for men to have male lovers, that being gay was entirely unremarkable. The idea of commonplace acceptance, different as it was from the narrow-minded reality of those times seemed a remarkable thing. And yet, with all due caveats to the trans- and homophobia that still most definitely exists and still most definitely negatively impacts people’s lives, now, a same sex partner is very far from extraordinary. I don’t make any claims for our having eradicated the bigotries, dismissals and hatreds that mar the lives of so many. Only that times do and can change, and sometimes in our muddling along there are victories as well as defeats.
Though I wrote some of Salt Lick in anger at what I see happening already, it was important to me to include the idea of hope. Not because we are in a battle between hope and disaster and each of us has to choose which we think will win, but because we are humans, and to live with a measure of both I suspect will always be our lot.
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